Opinion - Politics

Russian-Chinese pact to explore the moon is another sign the U.S. must change its approach to Moscow

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Key Points
  • Russia and China's space agencies signed an agreement this week to create an International Scientific Lunar Station.
  • Russia also apparently rebuked NASA's invitation to join the Artemis project that aims to put people back on the moon by 2024.
  • That follows a quarter of century of U.S.-Russian space cooperation, launched by those who dreamed of post-Cold War reconciliation.
  • Russia's growing strategic bond with China is the latest evidence the Western approach to Moscow has failed to produce the desired results.
Photo taken by the rover Yutu-2 (Jade Rabbit-2) on Jan. 11, 2019 shows the lander of the Chang'e-4 probe. China announced Friday that the Chang'e-4 mission, which realized the first-ever soft-landing on the far side of the moon, was a complete success.
Xinhua News Agency | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

Call it lunar politics.

This week Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, signed an agreement with the Chinese National Space Administration, to create an International Scientific Lunar Station "with open access to all interested nations and international partners."  It was the most dramatic sign yet that Moscow sees its space future with China and not the United States, further underscoring its growing strategic alignment with Beijing. 

That follows a quarter of century of U.S.-Russian space cooperation, launched by those who dreamed of a post-Cold War reconciliation between Moscow and Washington. The high point was the building and operating of the International Space Station.

This week's agreement also marked an apparent rebuke of NASA's invitation for Russia to join the Artemis project, named for Apollo's twin sister, that aims to put the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024. With international partners, Artemis would also explore the lunar surface more thoroughly than ever before, employing advanced technologies.

"They see their program not as international, but similar to NATO," sneered Dmitry Rogozin last year, the director general of Roscosmos, who did a lot of sneering previously in Brussels as the former Russian ambassador to NATO. "We are not interested in participating in such a project."

Rather than dwell on what all this means to the future of space, it is perhaps more important for the Biden administration to reflect on how this latest news should be factored into its emerging approach to Putin's Russia.

President Biden has no illusions about Putin, showing that he will engage when he concludes it is in the U.S. interest and sanction when necessary. His first foreign policy win was a deal with Putin to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that President Trump had abandoned.

ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JUNE 6, 2019: China's Persident Xi Jinping (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands at a ceremony at St Petersburg University in which Xi Jinping was awarded St Petersburg University honorary doctoral degree.
Alexei Nikolsky | TASS | Getty Images

That said, Biden also imposed new sanctions on Russia, in concert with the European Union, after the poisoning and then imprisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. It remains to be seen how the Biden administration will act on new or existing U.S. sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the most active issue currently in play which is dividing the EU and even German politics.

Whatever course Biden chooses, he would be wise not to compound the mistakes of previous administrations due to misperceptions about Russia's decline or too singular a focus on Beijing.

"Putin does not wield the same power that his Soviet predecessors did in the 1970s or that Chinese President Xi Jinping does today," writes Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Moscow for President Obama, in Foreign Affairs. "But neither is Russia the weak and dilapidated state that it was in the 1990s. It has reemerged, despite negative demographic trends and the rollback of market reforms, as one of the world's most powerful countries—with significantly more military, cyber, economic, and ideological might than most Americans appreciate."  

McFaul notes that Russia has modernized its nuclear weapons, while the U.S. has not, and it has significantly upgraded its conventional military. Russia has the 11th-largest economy in the world, with a per-capita GDP bigger than that of China.

"Putin has also made major investments in space weapons, intelligence, and cyber capabilities, about which the United States learned the hard way," wrote McFaul, referring to the major cyberattack that was revealed earlier this year after it penetrated multiple parts of the U.S. government and thousands of other organizations.

At the same time, Putin is showing less restraint in how aggressively he counters domestic opponents, defies Western powers, and appears willing to take risks to achieve a dual motive: restoring Russian standing and influence and reducing that of the United States.

Henry Foy, the Financial Times Moscow bureau chief, this weekend lays out a compelling narrative on today's Russia under the headline, "Vladimir Putin's brutal third act."

Writes Foy: "After 20 years in which Putin's rule was propped up first by economic prosperity, and then by pugnacious patriotism, his government has now pivoted to repression as the central tool of retaining power."

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The world has seen that graphically in the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader, and then his arrest when he returned to Russia after recovering in a German hospital. Foy also reports on a "blizzard of laws" passed late last year that crack down on existing and would-be opponents.  The latest move came today (Saturday) as Russian authorities detained 200 local politicians, including some of the highest profile opposition figures, at a Moscow protest.

Some see Putin's increasingly ruthless dousing of dissent and widespread arrests, amid the size and breadth of protests in support of Navalny, as a sign of Putin's growing vulnerability.

Yet others see his actions since the seizure of Crimea in 2014 right up until the apparent latest cyberattacks, as evidence of his increased capabilities. They warn of more brazen actions ahead.

Both views are right —Putin is more vulnerable and capable simultaneously. His oppression at home and assertiveness abroad are two sides of the same man. 

So, what to do about it? 

The Atlantic Council, the organization where I serve president and CEO, had an unusual public dust-up of feuding staff voices this week over what is the right course for dealing with Putin's Russia.

The arguments focused on how prominently a role human rights concerns should play in framing U.S. policy toward Moscow.

Wherever one comes down on that issue, what is hard to dispute is that Russia's growing strategic bond with China, underscored by this week's moonshot agreement, is just one among a growing mountain of evidence that the Western approach to Moscow over the past 20 years has failed to produce the desired results.

What is urgently needed is a Biden administration review of Russia strategy that starts by recognizing that misperceptions about Russian decline have clouded the need for a more strategic approach.

It should be one that would combine more attractive elements of engagement with more sophisticated forms of containment alongside partners. It will require patience and partners.

What is required is strategic context for the patchwork of actions and policies regarding Russia: new or existing economic sanctions regimes against Russia, potential response to the latest cyberattacks, more effective ways of countering disinformation, and a more creative response to growing Chinese-Russian strategic cooperation.

Overreaction is never good policy, but underestimation of Russia is, for the moment, the far greater danger.

The long-term goal should be what those at NASA hoped for 25 years ago—U.S.-Russian reconciliation and cooperation. Then put that in the context of a Europe whole and free and at peace, where Russia finds its rightful place, the dream articulated by President George H.W. Bush just months before the Berlin Wall fell.

Whatever Putin may want, it's hard to believe that Russians wouldn't prefer this outcome even to a Sino-Russian moon landing.

 Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States' most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper's European edition. His latest book – "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week's top stories and trends.

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Correction: The U.S. and Russia extended the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. A previous version of this story misstated the name of the treaty.